When reviewers outside the techno press take to an electronic dance record, it's usually because the disc is warmer than the average machine-driven platter--a long-player whose simulated humanity gives it a life both on and off the dance floor. But Joey Beltram, a longtime New York scenester who made his reputation with the 1991 club hits "Energy Flash" and "Mentasm," achieves something different with Close Grind. To wit: The CD makes intriguing listening even though it seems every bit as mechanical as the Ford assembly line. The reason has everything to do with Beltram's skill as an arranger. On the opening track, "Time," and most of the numbers that follow, he starts off spare, with a dominant beat and perhaps a single semi-melodic element; then, with a patience that's rare in virtually any sonic style this side of throat music, he subtly interweaves and intertwines additional slabs of noise. This sounds complicated, and at times it can be; after all, such layering is primarily associated with Philip Glass and Germanic art freaks like the members of Can, not turntable jockeys. But even when Beltram is working at the furthest edges of his genre (as on the perversely robotic "Loose Kick" and the gloriously repetitive "The View"), he never neglects the four-four beats that have motivated dancers since the beginning of time--or at least since Donna Summer met Giorgio Moroder. The nine offerings on Close Grind may not always stand on their own from a compositional standpoint, but when taken as a whole, they form a tightly knit web of rhythms that give your head something to think about while your feet are slapping themselves silly.
Austin's Loose Diamonds released two albums prior to Fresco Fiasco!, and both of them were filled with the sort of middling roots rock that sounds for all the world like the soundtrack to an uninspired beer commercial. You couldn't fault the craftsmanship of either record, and the band's core songwriters, Troy Campbell and Jud Newcomb, obviously had some chemistry. But to my ear, all that chemistry and craftsmanship was put to the service of the most unmemorable, edgeless mediocrity in the already personality-challenged roots-rock pantheon. The songs on these discs weren't measurably bad; they were just a bore. And now this--seven acoustic tunes slapped together at the tail end of a tour to feed a mostly European appetite for product (two-thirds of Loose Diamond's sales are rung up in the Old Country). So why is this not only the group's best outing, but one good enough to turn a doubter into a believer? For one thing, the acoustic turn-down soaks more character out of the guitars and voices than the act ever mustered with its amplifiers cranked up to eleven. Campbell's vocals are sweeter, and Newcomb's Cohen-esque musings are gruffer. For another, the players have framed the CD with two surefire cover tunes. "I Know You," penned by Al Strehli and previously covered by Jimmie Dale Gilmore during his Flatlanders days, is a honeyed opener, while the finale, the Stanley Brothers' "Stonewalls & Steelbars," is a fine choice that these guys romp through like true convicts. Moreover, the two additional covers and three originals are given an extra shine by their proximity to these cuts--especially Newcomb's "One Kiss Won't Hurt" and "You Keep Me (Hangin' On)," with Newcomb dueting with Toni Price. Fresco Fiasco! was conceived as a one-shot, an unplugged anomaly in a catalogue of electrified sound. I just hope the Diamonds keep making exceptions like this.
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To the Bone
During the Sixties and Seventies, the Kinks put out at least as much consistently entertaining and impressive music as any of their British Invasion contemporaries. Ray Davies began as a manufacturer of great riffs--witness "You Really Got Me," audible on a car commercial near you--but he soon developed into a charming, sharp-eyed social commentator and tale-spinner. By the time of concept albums such as Soap Opera, he'd gotten lost in his own whimsy, but the majority of his earlier efforts, including Something Else, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround and Arthur, stand up to comparisons with the best of the Beatles and the Stones. So it's with a sense of distress that one approaches To the Bone, a two-disc set that finds Ray and his brother, guitarist Dave Davies, reduced to recording semi-unplugged versions of old songs on a minor label in order to keep the old checking account open. The brothers would no doubt point out that perhaps half of the tunes on display here may be unfamiliar to listeners with a Top 40 mentality: "Picture Book" and "Do You Remember Walter," a pair of gems from Village Green, certainly fall into this category. But the world needs another sing-along rendition of "Lola" like Bill Clinton needs a few more sexual-harrassment lawsuits--and the same could be said to a lesser degree about the Bone run-throughs of "All Day and All of the Night," "Till the End of the Day" and numerous others. Ray deserves better than this, as the title cut and "Animal" demonstrate. While these tracks (the only new offerings here) certainly aren't groundbreaking, they echo with the sound of a master at work--and they're a lot more lively than, say, "Free as a Bird." In the trend-a-minute world of Nineties rock, though, none of that matters. We all know that pop music is an unforgiving and unsentimental industry that frequently treats worthy artists with disdain. But To the Bone is a vivid reminder of the price these performers must pay when the hits stop coming.